The short, sharp relief of the mid season break. It could help the side on the pathway to greatness for this squad of players and it’s unlikely that there will be many more chances of a rest as the season progresses. It’s almost theatre. In this theatre, one moment could make history. Tom Rogic anyone? We all get it because we all want a piece of it. The break that the team have not long arrived back from, could or perhaps should, set this team on a course. It might be one touch from a pass that promises very little, a kind break of the ball but hopefully that moment of magic will arrive. One trophy down, one almost in the bag with the potential of two more to come. Hopefully, honest mistakes aside. The team will need to stay calm and sometimes we’ll need to enjoy a little luck. These great theatres can become lonely places. Those players that command the stage, this is what makes them. This is where they will be remembered. These are the experiences. The events that fuel them. To rule here and to want more, or to have been inspired by this. Those who want to make their mark, the newcomers, the new signings. The young, the experienced and the hungry. Compper. Musonda. Hendry. Bain. Morgan still to come.
With constant speculation about who might have gone and who else might have come in, it couldn’t have been be an easy time to play for Celtic last month. Did the manager see you as surplus to requirements? If you’re one of the centre backs, did the arrival of Compper mean that you’d be playing your football elsewhere in February? The likeable Dane thought so and headed back to Denmark on loan.
Now that all of the transfer shenanigans are out of the way, it’s back to European football. Sure, there were some domestic games to take care of first. Brechin City, the only club in Scottish or English senior football without a league win this season were the first club up after the break in the Scottish Cup and were duly been knocked out. Partick Thistle were the hosts for the 23rd league game straight after and they too were taken care of. Hibs at home have been sent back to Leith with zero points. Their Edinburgh counterparts rocked up to Celtic Park and natural order was restored. The penultimate domestic tie before Zenit took place at Rugby Park but let’s move on quickly from that one. The winning Scottish Cup tie with with Partick was the last domestic game before Roberto Mancini brings his star-studded side to G40. The Zenit hierarchy are on record as saying that they looked to bring in a new manager after failing to qualify for the Champions League for the second year in a row. As you’d expect with such a high profile appointment, Zenit have not been shy in backing him with hard cash. Fourteen players have arrived since Mancini was appointed in July although a couple of those returned to the club from loan agreements. Mancini has been a busy boy. Whilst their third choice keeper, Mikhail Kerzhakov returned on loan from FC Orenburg, just the eleven years younger than his loanee club at 41, the other loanee, centre half, Vukasin Jovanovic decided to swap Zenit for Eibar in La Liga, having been at Bordeaux last season.
They’ve clearly got a strong recruitment structure in place at the club. Mancini raided league rivals Rostov for five players, three of those on free transfers. He did perhaps make the men in charge at the Russian Premier League a bit happier by then giving them €8m for a centre back, Mevlja and €2m for a right back, Terentjev. Both should play in Glasgow. Mancini wasn’t for stopping there though, he was happy to shop in both domestic and foreign markets. He plundered Tosno for striker, Anton Zabolotnyi who could make his debut in Glasgow. He has only 1691 minutes of top flight experience, bullet dodged there, well done on that extra minute! Kuzyaev from Grozny for €4m is a full international and a strong defensive midfielder. The former Manchester City gaffer has looked further afield too though and hasn’t been afraid to spend money. Chuck in €23m for defensive midfielder, Leandro Paredes from Roma, €16m for centre back, Emanuel Mammana from Lyon, €15m for River Plate and Argentina striker, Sebastián Driussi, €9m for his international team-mate, Emiliano Rigoni from Independiente and €8m for another defensive midfielder in Matías Kranevitter from Atlético Madrid, then you can appreciate the scale of the task that awaits this week.
They still have players there already though that should be recognisable to most. Ex Chelsea pair, Branislav Ivanović and Yuri Zhirkov both ply their trade there although Ivanović is struggling with injury for Thursday’s game.
According to the media over there, and despite spending nearly €90m, the Russians are desperate to add to their squad and need defensive reinforcements. A deal for the Sao Paulo defender Caio, who helped Brazil win gold at the 2016 Olympics is reportedly close and he’d eligible to play this week should a fee and clearance be agreed in time, although it looks unlikely now. Zenit tried to sign the 24 year old last year, but he was apparently not keen on moving to Russia. Why he would be now is anyone’s guess? Caio actually agreed a £12.5 million move to Valencia a couple of years ago, but the move fell through after he failed his medical following knee surgery. Apparently, they’ve made a £12 million bid for the Brazilian international defender and their window doesn’t close for just over a week. They’d also been linked with Marko Pjaca, the Juventus left winger in the most recent window but he plumped for a move to Schalke instead.
It’s worth remembering that just over five years ago, Zenit shocked football by shelling out £64m for Hulk and Axel Witsel, two players who had been highly coveted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Nowadays, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, means that Gazprom can no longer finance such transfers without first having to bring in funds via player sales. Their squad is still valued at more than double that of Celtic though.
Despite all of the money that Mancini has at his disposal, the club have a couple of nicknames that are less than flattering. One name that they’re known by is The Bags. Not moneybags as you’d be for given for thinking but The Plastic Bags. This is a throwback to 1984 when they won the title, the only one before Gazprom came along with millions to spend. So, what happened is that they produced thousands of plastic bags which had Zenit, Champions 1984, USSR emblazoned upon them. If you know anything about Soviet history and this isn’t something a lot of people will know, there was a real shortage of plastic bags. No 5p surcharge for those nationals! Clearly with this influx, suddenly everyone in the city had a plastic bag at their disposal, so the moniker stuck. The other nickname is arguably even worse, they’re also called The Tramps. They’re not to be confused with another club in Glasgow however.
Mancini is one of the highest profile foreign managers to have joined the Russian Premier League in recent years. Zenit, who are funded by the aforementioned Russian energy giant Gazprom, have used their almost bottomless pit of money to attract expensive foreign managers in the past, including André Villas-Boas, Dick Advocaat, and Luciano Spalletti. The man in the away dugout on Thursday isn’t struggling for cash. €4.5m a year should keep the lights on.
What about the team though? This will be their first competitive game since December 11th when they drew 0-0 with Terek Grozny. They’ve had five friendly matches during their winter break though winning four and drawing the other. The last one took place on Saturday when they beat old foes Maribor 3-1 despite only having three shots on target. The average age of the squad is bit older than Celtic at just over 28. After twenty games of their league season, they sit second, eight points behind Lokomotiv Moscow and just ahead of Spartak Moscow on goals scored. Ten wins, seven draws and three defeats means they are a team that can be got at. Like Celtic, they tend to like the 4-2-3-1 formation with Kokorin up front, Paredes in behind and Rigoni and Kuzyaev playing as inverted wingers.
They’ve scored 31 goals in those games and conceded just 13 so it could be tight on Thursday. Would you take a 1-0 win right now and hope for an away goal next week?